By William Moss Wilson

Recent initiatives show signs of hope for reviving long-dormant tourist sectors in war-torn Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Swiss-based Aga Khan Foundation is contributing $1 million over the next three years to the Bamiyan Ecotourism Project in central Afghanistan. According to Sanjeev Gupta, a regional program coordinator for Aga Khan, the project’s goal is to develop tourist infrastructure, train sector-related employees, and raise awareness about the region.

The relatively safe Bamiyan province is home to the stunning mountain lakes of Band-i-Amir and also to the cliff-carved Buddha statues, unfortunately destroyed by the Taliban in 2001.

Local infrastructure in Bamiyan has a long way to go. The 150-mile journey from Kabul to Bamiyan takes ten hours on tortuous dirt roads through the Koh-i-Baba mountains. The alternative route is thought to be under Taliban control.

In Iraq, where oil money is filling state coffers and civilian mortality rates are at their lowest since the beginning of the Second Gulf War, optimism seems to be gaining a foothold.

The Iraqi Ministry of Tourism held a tourism fair last month and sponsored a contest for local artists to design posters promoting travel to the country. Mohsen al-Yacoubi, head of the tourism board, delivered the results of the contest to a packed conference room at the al-Mansour Melia hotel, the site of a deadly suicide bombing last year. The ministry announced plans to open tourism offices in select European cities in 2009.

Outside investors are also placing bets on the improving security climate in Iraq. American investor Robert Kelley broke ground last month on a $100-million luxury hotel in downtown Baghdad.

“We think the Iraqi people want to get along with each other,” Kelley told the Associated Press.

For time being, travel is discouraged outside the heavily fortified Green Zone. No official timetable exists for the reopening of the Baghdad Museum. The museum is located outside the Green Zone and officials worry that it could become an easy target for suicide bombers.

Religious tourism is already on the upsurge, thanks in part to an $80-million renovation of a military airfield in Najaf. Iraq’s newest airport opened to commercial traffic on July 20. The airport provides access to several of the Islamic world’s holiest sites in Najaf and nearby Karbala. An investment group led by the Kuwaiti firm Al-Aqeelah plans to pump another $170 million into the project as traffic into the airport increases.

The consensus among travelers, from Lonely Planet’s Thorn Tree to Robert Young Pelton’s, is that travel in Iraq south of Kurdistan remains a foolhardy endeavor. Both the US State Department and the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs strongly discourage unnecessary travel to any part of Iraq or Afghanistan. Their web sites warn of the familiar dangers, terrorism, rampant kidnapping, and widespread use of roadside bombs, as well as less obvious threats-the World Health Organization has confirmed Iraq as a site of human deaths from avian influenza.

Other countries, including the UK, Denmark, Japan, and Germany, have amended their travel warnings to note the higher security level in Iraqi Kurdistan.


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